Coronavirus will travel 'incredibly fast' in Africa's slums, U.N. cities chief warns

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 24 April 2020 16:05 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Community volunteers put the masks on as they prepare to distribute food packages during a 21-day nationwide lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in a township in Cape Town, South Africa, April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo

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The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif about efforts to slow the spread of the virus in Africa's cities

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By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations this week launched a $72 million plan to fight the spread of the new coronavirus amongst the one billion people living in densely-populated slums and informal settlements in cities across the world.

More than 2.7 million people have been reported to be infected by the novel coronavirus globally and 189,970 have died, according to a Reuters tally, with the majority of cases in Europe and the United States.

But the virus is now spreading across Africa, Asia and Latin America, hitting countries with weak healthcare systems that already face challenges from access to water and overcrowded housing, making hand-washing and social distancing a luxury.

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The Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed UN-Habitat's Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif about efforts being made to slow the spread of the virus in Africa's cities, where one in every two people is estimated to live in an informal settlement.

In what ways is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting poor communities living in densely populated areas in Africa?

Firstly, in terms of health, they are more at risk due to malnutrition, chronic respiratory diseases, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and higher exposure to other diseases associated with weak hygiene practices, exposure to waste and wastewater, overcrowding, inadequate housing and exposure to seasonal flooding, changing weather conditions and other risks.

There are also serious economic challenges due to the loss of income as most residents rely on informal daily work to put food on the table every day.

The lockdowns, curfews, transport restrictions and closure of businesses, building sites and markets mean there are few opportunities available.

Thirdly we also see the potential for social problems. For example, the threat of unrest and violence related to the enforcement actions of national measures related to COVID-19 and the increase in domestic violence worldwide.

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing the multiple inequalities, forms of exclusion and deprivations, caused by decades of neglect and underinvestment in planning, basic and social services and health facilities.

"Leaving no one behind" is even more important during these times, for the well-being of all and controlling the pandemic.

What are you seeing happening within these communities in Africa, as governments attempt to impose social distancing and hand-washing measures?

UN-Habitat has global presence in some 90 countries around the world. We are seeing many in these communities obeying government instructions, for example, the lockdowns in South Africa and Nigeria and the part-curfew in Kenya.

People are also trying recommended prevention methods by wearing masks and carrying out handwashing if they can.

They are also mobilizing themselves within their communities to find ways of bringing in water stations for handwashing and other facilities.

However, in overcrowded conditions physical distancing is just not possible.

Why is it important to focus on these communities living in urban slums?    

We are extremely concerned about the rate at which COVID-19 could travel in slums once we see community transmission there.

There are large numbers of people living in houses and streets so narrow the virus would spread incredibly fast.

However, these communities are extremely well-organized and they have expert local knowledge that is of great value when localizing policies and measures to protect people adequately from the fast spreading virus.

If the community can stand together, recognize and value all its assets, and is further empowered to act, then the response and recovery will be more sustainable.

This means making sure structures are in place for community engagement and leadership, full protection from evictions, improved and affordable services, socio-economic safety nets, access to food, localized spaces of care and support.

Why have you launched the COVID-19 Response Plan and what does it entail?

UN-Habitat is focused on urban issues and COVID-19 is clearly an urban humanitarian crisis. Over 95 percent of the world's COVID-19 cases are in urban areas with nearly 1,500 cities affected.

So our urgent COVID-19 Response Plan focuses on immediate action in 64 countries in poor and densely-populated areas.

Over 70% of the support will be used to help informal settlements to improve affordable access to water and sanitation, raise awareness, ensure safe transport and support initiatives to prevent people becoming homeless by providing temporary shelter or alternative income generating activities.

We will also use our expertise to help governments make key decisions by collecting data and mapping hotspots and help mitigate the local social and economic impact of COVID-19.

What African nations are you focusing on and why?

The 20 countries are: Angola, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and  Zimbabwe.

In Africa, we will focus on a broad approach to urban areas, including prevention and the emergency response to outbreaks in informal settlements, slums and crowded marketplaces, while looking ahead at recovery and developing durable solutions for longer-term impact at the national, city and neighbourhood levels.

UN-Habitat will focus on awareness raising, access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, medical facilities, waste management, mobility and connectivity, sustaining a basic income, energy, data and information management, policy and strategy advice, social cohesion, housing, and financing.

Can you give practical examples of what kind of response you envisage in Africa?

In Kenya, for example, UN-Habitat is supporting youth groups in the informal settlements of Kibera and Mathare in terms of awareness raising, training on hand washing and community mobilization.

UN-Habitat has established 10 washing hand stations which are well attended by communities and there have been over 100,000 handwashes at these facilities so far.

This action has been catalytic in bringing others on board to set up another 18 facilities. We are seeing increased women and youth entrepreneurship in the informal settlements with the construction of masks and running the hand washing facilities.

In addition, UN-Habitat is assisting the transport providers through messaging on how to avoid infection and providing sanitizers to users.

Do you think Western-style lockdowns and other social distancing measures adopted in richer nations are appropriate for developing nations where informal settlements are the norm?

Global experts and the international community agree that the mainstream response to COVID-19 at national and city levels needs to be tailored to the local context in informal settlements, as well as to refugee and displacement camps.

Informal settlements are diverse, even within settlements clusters of households differ, and more so at citywide level, there are diverse living conditions.

Often a one-fits-all approach is not feasible. Local living conditions and people’s needs are different. They require interventions that are tailored with a people-centred lens and an action-oriented approach to physical living conditions.

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(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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